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County records on harassment complaints a mess, report finds

An independent investigation raises questions about the county's handling of harassment complaints.

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By Noah Haglund and Scott North
Herald Writers
Published:
EVERETT — Snohomish County's management of workplace harassment complaints has been so jumbled that reports don't exist for scores of cases, and employees often have waited months — sometimes even years — for resolution of their concerns, an independent investigation has concluded.
Under Mark Knudsen, who resigned this week as the county's Equal Employment Opportunity investigator, record keeping was so spotty that he can't explain why he decided to close without recommendation at least 33 cases.
For another seven cases, he reportedly could find no documentation at all.
Knudsen held his job for 10 years and handled 126 complaints. He wrote reports in just 32 cases.
The findings were contained in a nine-page report from Linda Walton, a labor attorney with Seattle-based Perkins Coie. It was released Wednesday afternoon and recommends several reforms, including quicker investigations and rigorous documentation.
The report's findings came as no surprise to two corrections deputies who in 2008 filed a lawsuit against the county for what they contend is a pattern of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation among some workers at the Snohomish County Jail.
Jackie Hall and Dan Bly are a couple. The lawsuit was the only option to protect themselves after Knudsen's investigation of their concerns dragged out unresolved for more than two years, they said.
“That's what we've been saying all along. We go over there, and it is like a black hole,” Hall said. “He (Knudsen) tells you he will get back to you and he never, ever does.”
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon last month requested the review after concerns surfaced over how harassment complaints have been handled in the planning department. Knudsen routinely determined the complaints were unfounded.
Walton's report is silent on how often Knudsen has concluded county employees had been harassed or discriminated against over the years, or whether his conclusions were appropriate.
Reardon sent an e-mail to county employees discussing the findings.
“Recommendations contained within the report will be implemented and used as a road map moving forward,” he said.
Human resources director Bridget Clawson is taking over Knudsen's duties. The review recommends making her department, which is managed by Reardon, responsible for investigating harassment complaints.
The County Council likely will convene a public meeting about the report, Chairman Dave Gossett said.
“I thought it did a good job of looking at procedures and where problems in procedures might be,” Gossett said. “I was surprised there wasn't better documentation of what had been done.”
Knudsen was paid $99,000 a year. His duties included conducting workplace harassment training for county employees and maintaining county plans for treating workers fairly. He ran his office without clerical support.
By Knudsen's calculation, 41 of 126 complaints he investigated either failed to violate Equal Employment Opportunity rules or were resolved by management, the report says.
As of Jan. 21, Knudsen was working on 11 ongoing investigations. The oldest was a complaint filed in August 2008. The other open investigations were complaints filed between April and November last year.
“It is impossible to determine with certainty how long it took Knudsen to complete most of his investigations” because he didn't keep records, the report says.
Councilman Brian Sullivan said the report pointed out important shortcomings that could lead to useful recommendations, chiefly, the amount of time it took to investigate complaints. But he wondered whether the county's own attorneys could have done the same work for less money.
“It was nothing earth-shattering,” Sullivan said. “For the size of the report, and the amount of money it cost, I think it probably could have been handled by the prosecuting attorney's office.”
The councilman also wondered whether it was wise to keep the harassment investigations under the executive branch, rather than assign them to officials with legal training, such as the Prosecuting Attorney.
Knudsen, who is a lawyer, worked with a great deal of autonomy, but reported regularly to Deputy County Executive Mark Soine. His work drew public attention in the months after former county planning director Craig Ladiser was fired for exposing himself to a woman who works as a lobbyist with the building industry. That happened at a June 24 golf tournament in Redmond hosted by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
Public-records requests revealed that planning employees had long complained of sexual harassment in the department Ladiser managed, though no formal action was taken.
Walton was hired to investigate Ladiser's golf course incident. She was paid roughly $12,000 — the same price she negotiated for the report released Wednesday.
Hall and Bly, the corrections deputies, said they expect their lawsuit will show Knudsen mishandled their cases.
Knudsen e-mailed Hall a transcript of an interview he did with her in which she detailed concerns about workplace harassment. However, he mixed up her transcript with one from an interview with another county employee who was making a separate complaint, she said. Her attorney has a copy, Hall said.
Bly, meanwhile, said Knudsen told him that he'd mistakenly recorded over a tape of his interview with Bly, and planned to create a transcript from memory. In the lawsuit, Bly alleges he has been retaliated against, demoted and nearly fired for insisting that workplace concerns be fully investigated.
“We would never encourage anyone else to do this with this (system) because of the poor management,” Bly said. “It has destroyed our lives.”
Story tags » County CouncilCounty executiveEmployeesCivil Rights

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